March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Here is a new genre in Holocaust memoirs: Otto Dov Kulka, a distinguished Jewish professor specializing in Nazi history, waited till his sixties before recording his own stay in Auschwitz as a boy.
In “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death,” the book these recordings have become, Kulka insists that this is not autobiography, rather “fragments of memory and imagination” retrieved from the mind of a 10-year-old child.
The effect is powerful and haunting. The scene is the cosily-named “family camp” the Nazis established at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1943-44, where Kulka was sent with his parents from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, or ghetto.
“Family camp” is of course a euphemism for mass extermination. Miraculously, when nearly everyone has been gassed or marched away as the front line approaches and the crematoria are destroyed, he survives.
“Probing memory,” as Kulka calls his account, gives his book a misty quality, though there are concrete incidents. He was pulled free from an electric fence. He was a patient in the camp hospital, run by Josef Mengele.
He saw punishments and executions, organized with due order, and it is episodes like these that inspired Kafkaesque feelings in his young self: that these were the rules of the game, “a perplexing order that was somehow justified.”
A quasi-poetic detachment deepens feeling, as when Kulka speaks of what he has seen as “the immutable law of the Great Death,” something that “transcends the sphere of history.”
Instead the camp becomes a metaphor for the central tragedy of life.
A few hundred yards from the crematoria, culture goes on.
The Jews sing in choirs, stage concerts and plays, the young are taught about the Greek and Persian wars, and Kulka plays tunes from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his harmonica.
In the mornings the inmates skirt piles of corpses stacked behind the barracks, so that the boy encounters music, history and death together. In such places the book reads like a poisoned dream. The inmates know what awaits them.
Irony and black jokes abound, whether about escaping through the smokestacks of the crematorium, or in mock-discussions about “the solution to the German question.”
Kulka’s mother perished and his father survived. Afterwards, in visits to Israel together, the father persists in asking “Where was God?”, only to be told by a Rabbi: “That question is one that it is forbidden to ask.”
Later an answer comes in one of Kulka’s many dreams. In it he sees that God was there in the camp all along, grieving.
God appeared “as a kind of mysterious emanation of pain” and later as an earthly figure: “He was alive, shrunken, hunched forward with searing pain, as in the twisted posture of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker.” A figure on the scale of his creatures, in the form of a human being who came and was there…”
For Kulka the dreams keep coming. In one, Mengele turns up as a tour guide at Auschwitz, something everyone accepts as natural. Though continuing with his academic work on the Nazi period, he finds it hard to see plays or films (he has never seen “Shoah”) for fear of feeling that “it was not like that.”
Three poems survived the flames of the family camp at Auschwitz, and are reproduced here. One of them is “We, The Dead, Accuse!” whose last verse reads: “And then we’ll emerge, in awful ranks, A skull on our skulls and bony shanks; and we’ll roar in the faces of all the people We, the dead, accuse!”
Only in a coda does the mist of memory dissipate and the sinister truth emerge about Kulka’s camp. To placate international concerns, in mid-1944 Adolf Eichmann allowed Red Cross representatives to visit the Theresienstadt ghetto.
Remarkably they were satisfied, and informed that there would be no further transfers East. Thus reassured they asked no questions about the welfare of those already sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and dropped a request to visit the “family camp.”
Meanwhile the inmates were being instructed to write postcards to friends and relatives abroad. Three weeks later almost everyone there was gassed, and the camp destroyed.
“Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death” is published by Harvard University Press/ Belknap Press in the U.S. (144 pages, $23.95) and Allen Lane in the U.K. (9.99 pounds.) To buy the book in North America, click here.
(George Walden is a former U.K. diplomat and Conservative minister. He is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris arts and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.
To contact the writer of this review: George Walden in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.